Josie Billington & Rick Rylance – Why Reading is Good for You

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre
23rd August 2017

In 1959 C.P. Snow, who was both a physical chemist and a novelist, delivered Cambridge University’s annual Rede Lecture, in which he spoke of the ‘two cultures’ of the humanities and the sciences, and how a gulf of mutual incomprehension had grown up between them. Today in the Corner Theatre we have been listening to speakers whose professional and academic efforts have continued both because of and despite that gap, in areas that have had a more than tangential relationship to the humanities in general and Literature in particular.

Josie Billington is Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, and is also involved with the charity ‘The Reader’, which exists to facilitate reading groups where people who may be experiencing mental health issues can share readings of ‘great literature’. I have put quotation marks round that last term both to indicate that these are the exact words that appear on the web site of ‘The Reader’, and just to acknowledge that it is a term that has been challenged over the recent decades, though not today, Dr. Billington’s speciality being in the nineteenth century literary canon. Her recent book – and yes, this is an EIBF event so there has to be one – is entitled Is Literature Healthy? and it sets out the argument for the therapeutic value of reading.

Rick Rylance is Dean of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and Rector of the Institute of English Studies. Until recently he was also CEO of the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, and his new book, Literature And The Public Good, comes from his experience as an advocate for culture and literature in particular to those who tread the thick-piled carpets of the corridors of power. Both Dr. Billington’s and Professor Rylance’s books are published by the Oxford University Press in a series of monographs entitled ‘The Literary Agenda’. The event was chaired by prominent Scottish GP and non-fiction writer Gavin Francis, who gave each of the main speakers ten minutes or so at the podium to explain the thrust of their books, before asking them for amplification of some of their points, and eventually moderating a brief Q&A.

Josie Billington spoke quite movingly about her work with The Reader, giving examples of literary texts that had voiced the inexpressible at the core of depression. There was a passage from Geroge Eliot’s Middlemarch, two lines by Christina Rossetti – “We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack: / not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.” – and two verses from John Clare’s ‘I am’. “Literature,” she said, “can make private and barely expressible things more personally felt and more publicly shareable.” A case in point was that of a reading group member who, on reading the verses by Clare, left the room for half an hour and, on coming back said “I need this language.”

Normalising the deep sadness that is often diagnosed and medicated as depression seemed to be the goal. I must confess to having mixed feelings about this, on the one hand being pleased for the therapeutic effect of literature on people who needed it, but on the other hand having to roll my eyes that something more than one person in my own family has fought very hard to have clinically diagnosed and taken seriously is now being brought back into ‘normality’.

Rick Rylance spoke of publishing and all associated enterprises accounting for seven percent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product, being worth about £84bn per year, bigger than either the pharmaceutical or finance sectors. It is “a real and dynamic sector,” and culture in general lent the country diplomatic credibility and economic trust internationally. Reading is a mainstream activity, and “there is research that correlates ‘cultural participation’ with living longer.”

“Why,” he asked, “is cultural life in Britain, not least in policy circles and quite senior levels in government, seen as an add-on, a secondary phenomenon, a ‘nice-to-have-but-now-let’s-get-serious’?” A questioner from the floor suggested that the last thing the politically powerful wanted was the general population acquiring the kind of critical thinking that studying literature brings with it, to which he said this:

“My experience of Whitehall does not incline me to think that politicians are either the most intellectually or imaginatively generous individuals. They’re there for a quick fix, and they’re there for making a certain kind of impression, and to further their careers. None of that encourages me to believe they would be interested in critical thinking, because it requires a deal of work and reflection, and, frankly, knowledge […]” What worried him a little about the question, however was the idea that the humanities have a monopoly on critical thinking, when it was also a required and acquired skill of scientists and medics. “It’s a property of becoming intelligently informed, not of doing this discipline or that discipline.”

Despite the differences in the two speakers’ approaches to and uses of literature, they converged on many things. They saw literature as a ‘common possession’, and that it had to do not so much with private thought as with communication and transmission – economics and therefore politics could not grasp the way that the value inherent in a book, which may be lent or given away or discussed or used as a therapeutic aid, its concern with hopes and ambitions and emotions, is much more than its cover price.

There is also a problem with studying literature, however, when deep engagement or even pleasurable lightness, is sacrificed for “three or four talking points for an essay.”

Though other events this year may have given me a buzz through my being in the same room as a literary giant, this is the one which has engaged me most directly, the one which has been most intellectually stimulating and satisfying. Also I commend Dr. Billington and Professor Rylance for the clarity with which they argued their cases. I didn’t get an opportunity to buy either speaker’s book, but I may well do so at the next opportunity.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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